The Virtual Agora: Why Digital Democracy Is A Vital Next Step In Human Organization

Thesis: Virtual direct democracy can be and already has become an effective tool to combat the top down hierarchies of the corporate/political oligarchy of the 21st century civilization machine. By utilizing open source and free platforms organizers can remove many of the stumbling blocks of participation that result from the capitalist condition and can horizontally create and develop organic resistance and alternatives. 

About Me: My name is Larry Swetman. I am an artist, writer, and self-labeled radical who lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA. I have spent the past few years organizing in the Global People's Movement from within its Occupy offshoot. I worked primarily out of Philly, but also spent a good amount of time organizing nationally and internationally with InterOccupy. I was of the first volunteers that helped the craft and develop the process with InterOccupy which was used to organize many events from regional/national/global solidarity actions, the 2012 Occupy National Gathering, and most recently Occupy Sandy . 

My Aim: I want to empower you. I am not sharing these experiences for any sort of validation or glory. I want to show you that anyone can use these systems and processes to organize in their own communities so that we can have our toolboxes ready to fight back against the oligarchy-behemoth before it swallows us whole. After all, genocide is marching west through Gaza as I post this; how shall we respond?

What? 

Before we get into the processes we need to evaluate what the tools are. We primarily use three tools: a phone, email, and maestro. The first two are self-explanatory; The third may be new to you. The maestro conference call system is a tool that allows us to thread together multiple phone lines and structure a conversation in a way that reflects the principles that formed the backbone of the general assemblies of the worldwide protest camps. 

It allows a facilitator (or more, if desired) and tech assistant (again, and more if necessary depending on the volume of the call) to structure the conversation. A digital interface allows the facilitator and TA to a) see the names and hands (more on the latter later) of the people who have called in (though some choose to remain anonymous), b) mute and unmute specific microphones so that folks don't talk over each other, c) break the call down into subgroups so that specific conversations can be had without taking up all of the space of the call. The interface also has many other minute options that make conversations easier to structure such as timers, notification sounds, and a staff chat so that the organizers of the call can share information such as "Hey, caller X is having difficulty hearing can you take them into a private subgroup and help them fix their problem?" 

Additionally, there is also a participation dashboard that callers with access to a computer can see information posted by the facilitators of the call such as agenda, graphs, links, phone lists, sign ups etc. Lastly, when folks sign up for the calls they enter their email address. Maestro makes it possible to gather these emails en masse so that follow up information such as call notes can be sent with ease. 

The entire purpose of the system is to streamline access and level the ground on which organization happens. 

How?

The keen observer may have picked up on the potential for the facilitator and TA to dictate the terms of the call. After all, they have the mute capabilities, the responsibility to call on folks, and the general power to direct the flow of conversation. The keen observer would be right to question this power which is why we worked very hard on the process by which these happen. We wanted to make sure that the facilitator and TA were empowering conversations, not dictating them.

The processes were modeled on the structure of the General Assemblies which were prevalent in almost of all of the global protest camps from the past few years. At the beginning of the call the facilitator explains a technical feature by which numbers on the telephone key pad of the user correlates to a designation on the interface on which the facilitator works. Generally, they correspond as follows:

1- "Raise hand" to get put on "stack" (or a list that is ordered according to progressive principles, meaning that traditionally marginalized voices are given priority over typically dominant groups).

2- "Twinkles" which means that someone wants to show support for what someone is saying. Typically, the facilitator will tell the speaker when someone or multiple people are showing support. Also, in a similar vein the 2 is used for a "yes" vote in a poll or vote.

3- "Down Twinkles" which means the someone wants to express that they do not like what someone is saying. Again, the facilitator will usually tell the group when such feelings are expressed. The 3 is also generally used as a "no" vote in a poll or vote.

4- "Direct Response": One must remember that the goal of these calls is a conversation. However, when the facilitator is given the authority to structure the conversation they need to know when someone needs to speak directly to what is being addressed or has a new idea. Otherwise, the conversations would be muddled at best and incoherent at worst. New ideas usually use the number 1, but when someone needs to address something someone just said then they press 4 and go to the top of the stack (or list). Though, again, progressive principles are followed. If someone is speaking often then the facilitator may put them farther down on the direct response list so that others can be heard as well. 

5- "Technical Difficulties" or "Point of Process": The 5 is mostly used when someone either is having trouble with some technical aspect of the call such as not being able to hear or their buttons not registering on the interface. Some groups also use this number to give the facilitator feedback on keeping to process above. For example, if the community is having a discussion about X and someone on the call starts talking about Y then someone may press 5 to express that Y is off topic at which point it is the responsibility of the facilitator to bring the conversation back to its original point and continue through the stack. The facilitator will usually address 5's as soon as they come up. 

These five buttons and six designations are designed to empower the group to maintain power over the flow of conversation while allowing the facilitator and TA to moderate it. The facilitator will usually refrain from offering points in the discussion and if they must put themselves at the bottom of the stack. The experienced facilitator is usually very cautious in their role because of the inherent power to direct the flow of conversation. 

Why?

The prima facie reason for structuring calls this way is to make them as horizontal as possible. The Global People's Movement--it seems to me--is built around the idea that those in power have built up a hierarchy of power that systematically permeates throughout our civilization and society that makes participation in movements difficult. By using telephones and the internet we are effectively removing a lot of the barriers to participation that a lot of people face. When someone does not have to travel then they are a) more likely to participate and b) do not have to take much time out of their already busy lives. If the stated goals of the People's Movement are to include the everyday person then the hardships of those people must be presupposed. In the capitalist world the everyday person works 1/3 of their lives and sleeps another 1/3 which only leaves them 1/3 for their passions, desires, and projects. Lay on top of that the constant strain of working for ends meat (and sometimes less) and the population is automatically divided into those with the privilege to participate and those without. Calls can remove this barrier at least in some capacity, at least in initial exposure.

Secondly, civilization has been segregated by the oligarchy into many different--sometimes conflicting--subgroups based on anything from race, class, and creed to nationality or religion. A lot of these designations are interpreted and assumed visually. By removing the visual component it is a lot harder to segregate a group; you cannot divide what you cannot see. Even gender can be a grey area when all a facilitator has to go is a name and a voice. Therefore, by holding conversations in the virtual agora the capacity exists to temporarily remove the illusions that the powerful have created to divide us. 

Why is access and equality so important in this setting? Because only mass participation and cooperation can foil the plots of the oligarchy. The global wealth empire is based on the fact that people are different and therefore should be treated different. While it is true that every person is as unique as a snowflake in a superstorm, it is also true that the Earth is a biosphere in which we are all a part. We all have a responsibility to act in a manner befitting the continuing evolution of the human race. Harmony can only be achieved through cooperation and sustainability. However, civilization is structured into divisions with certain privileges granted to some and oppressions to others. To overcome these sets of have's and have not's a system must to devised to break down the dividing wall of hostility and level the playing field for all those affected--namely everyone. 

The virtual agora has the capacity--assuming the painstaking and vigilant work of evolving the processes to meet the needs of all involved--to make cooperation accessible to everyone with access to a phone. That last piece is always going to be a stumbling block; how do we make the process accessible to everyone? But that is a problem that can only be solved by the willing participation of those with the capacity to use their privilege to address it. 

So what?

This technology is in its infancy. There can come a day when technologies can be made to make access to virtual democratic platforms very cheap and more efficient. When that day comes then perhaps true participatory democracy will be possible. In the meantime, we can use what we have now to theorize, plan, and execute plans to beckon that day. People are struggling more and more everyday and have been for centuries under the weight of Empire. War, famine, greed, and poverty. By using tools like virtual agoras we can in some small way effect the world around us by practicing the world we want to see in real time. You never know, the ideas in the mind of a few may produce a vision for the many to rally around, but they will need access. Currently, such ideas are usually limited to the rich, connected, and elite. They then exert their power from the top until their venom trickles down to where we small fish fry. 

However, when access and equality are addressed and the willing have an avenue by which to participate democracy is possible. Again, this technology is in its infancy, but we all have to crawl before we can walk. The virtual agoras can be a help in taking our first steps… if we use them. They are there; they are free. We just need to use them. If you are tired of a world run by the musings and whims of the rich and powerful and have an idea to fix it--let it breathe. Give others a chance to listen, critique, and be inspired. Gather with like minds in a space committed to access and equality and debate how to fight back. For only when we fight back do things change.